Howard Simon woke at 3:30 a.m. on Monday, his mind revved up replaying the final 13 seconds of regulation of Buffalo’s crushing playoff loss to Kansas City in the AFC divisional round.
It was in those 13 seconds that a presumptive 36-33 Buffalo victory flipped to an inevitable 42-36 overtime loss, a reversal of fortune that seemed impossibly cruel even for a fan base that knows little else.
Simon knew he wasn’t alone in his thoughts. He’s been a sports radio host in Buffalo since 1989 and co-hosted the morning show on 550-AM WGR with Jeremy White since 2004. He knows Bills fans. He is a Bills fan. And he knows that hope is a dangerous thing for Bills fans, which is why they long ago learned to always expect the worst.
But 13 seconds? How do you blow a playoff game in 13 seconds?
Many fans relaxed and dared to celebrate a victory seemingly at hand. They looked forward to hosting the AFC championship game on Sunday. They dared to dream that this forlorn franchise and championship-starved city — itself always overshadowed — could actually, at last, win a Super Bowl.
And then, just like that, it was gone, a sucker punch not even a Bills fan could see coming.
“This,” Simon said, “is never going to stop hurting.”
Simon knew there was no way he would get back to sleep. So a little after 4 a.m., he headed to the station, rolling through the predawn dark and cold in a complete daze. It was 5 degrees outside.
By 6 a.m., with sunrise still more than 90 minutes away, he and White were on the air, not so much as sports radio hosts, but as mass therapists to a region of fans suffering through the latest bout of shared trauma.
This was the frontlines of the funeral and they were pastors to a despondent flock that were in desperate, dire need of, well, an outlet.
"You know, we talk for a living,” Simon said in his opening remarks. “We’re supposed to have a lot to say. I may just say ‘13 seconds’ over and over for the next four hours. I’ll apologize now: ‘13 freaking seconds.’”
And so the show was off, equal parts complaints and compassion, emotion and empathy. The phone lines immediately lit up. Multiple callers said they had stayed up all night waiting for the show so they’d have someone to speak with. One caller hadn’t slept the night before the game either because she had been too excited.
Everyone was sorting through feelings that ranged from dismay to disbelief to anger to, well, something close to self-torture.
“There’s a 30-minute video of the end of the game on YouTube,” said Mike from Toronto. “I’ve been watching it over and over and over again. I just can’t believe it. I am in utter shock. It just sucks.”
While the rest of the country hailed the game as one of the greatest ever played, here that title came with an awful price tag.
Losers, once again. The dream, deferred, one more time.
The Bills not only have never won a Super Bowl, they once lost four of them in a row. They are more famous for their defeats — “Wide Right,” “the Music City Miracle” and now “13 Seconds" — than their victories.
The team is everything here, binding together city and suburb, socioeconomic groups, backgrounds, races and ages. It’s generational, parents handing down the passion to children. It extends to Buffalo’s many diaspora, who have headed elsewhere for opportunity yet still cling to this team anyway.
“Bills fans love being Bills fans,” White said. “It’s a fraternity they are in. They are loyal. They went 17 seasons without the playoffs and during those years the only thing they had was each other. Now here’s this team worth loving … and it ends like this?”
It’s why the pain was real.
“I'm really, really down,” said Louie from Niagara Falls. “... I am sick to my stomach.”
“I'm shook,” said Nick from Buffalo. “I'm shaken to my core.”
Everyone was assigning blame. Most fell on head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier for their decisions and strategies during those final, fatal 13 seconds.
From not squib kicking, to leaving Travis Kelce open, to whatever caused everything that could go wrong all at once.
From Simon: “Kelce? Anyone? Anyone want to be near him? … It shouldn’t be enough time for anybody …. It’s infuriating … What are you doing? I mean, what are you defensively? You’re too far off the ball, what are you doing? … We’re going to remember this as the night everyone got their heart stomped on …”
It went on and on, the callers jumping in.
Nick in Buffalo: “You leave the middle of the field wide open? I don’t understand. It makes no sense.”
Marty in Cheektowaga: “Either McDermont or Frazier choked this game [away]. If I was on the sideline last night, we would be having a championship game in Buffalo.”
Wade in Toronto: “I blame everybody. I blame everybody completely.”
This was cathartic. Occasionally unhinged, but cathartic. The hosts figured that was the goal for Monday. No need to point out that if “Marty in Cheektowaga” were actually coaching the Bills on Sunday, they probably would have lost by five touchdowns. And no reason to point out the obvious — that with Josh Allen as the quarterback, there should be other chances.
There is time for that. Monday was too raw for optimism.
“On a day like today, they just need to be mad. I need to be mad,” co-host Jeremy White said. “Sometimes, when you’re in a fight with someone, you know they just need to let it out. ‘Why did this happen? Why did that happen?’ Let them process through it. Let them be mad.”
They were mad. They were hurt. They are sleep-deprived and emotional. Why does this keep happening, they wondered? What did Buffalo do to deserve this?
No one expected an answer. All they wanted was this, this strange slice of media — an AM-radio show turned regional grief therapy session. Soon callers were thanking Simon and White for what they were providing. There were even a few laughs, gallows humor to lighten the mood.
“You guys should get some kind of keys to the city for all you do in these difficult times,” Dave in Buffalo said.
“I really love you both,” Butch in Buffalo said.
All over Western New York, all over the country, Bills fans were tuning in (or sitting on hold) so that maybe they could begin to turn this dark morning toward brighter days, even if the scar will never go away.
Just seven or so months until training camp.